Defiant Gainesville pastor goes ahead with plans to burn Korans despite pleas

GAINESVILLE — Pastor Terry Jones stayed holed up in his Dove World Outreach Center most of Tuesday. His center is a large prefab warehouse on a treeless field in a rural neighborhood. It has a large neon cross over the entrance that someone shattered with a rock.

The field outside looked like an RV park, TV news trucks parked everywhere. They parked in front of a sign with red letters that read: "International Burn a Koran Day."

Camera operators waited for Jones to come out and talk about burning Korans on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, but he declined to leave his office. His wife, Sylvia, chased a trespassing newswoman out of the building and threw her off the property.

Other than his wife, Jones seemed to be alone. Two associate pastors, husband and wife Wayne and Stephanie Sapp, roamed the lawn, talking to media. They wore .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols in holsters on their hips. They said they'd had hundreds of threats.

Inside, Jones, 58, remained behind his plain desk, most of his face masked by a thick, sculpted gray mustache that rose almost to his sideburns. If he was armed, the gun wasn't showing.

Behind him on the wall was a gun range target. Next to it was a head of death in a Middle Eastern headdress. The target's bull's-eye focused on the figure's chest.

Beside the targets was a movie poster, showing Mel Gibson as Braveheart.

"People are trying to associate us with Nazis," Jones said.

"The Nazis gathered up all the books they disagreed with and burned them."

On Saturday, he said, he's just burning the Koran.

"This is not a purification of society. It's a protest."

• • •

The Koran burning was planned months ago. Many in Gainesville have known about it since last summer. Kids from the center showed up in town and on the University of Florida campus in T-shirts that read, "Islam Is of the Devil."

The neighboring Trinity United Methodist Church tried to ignore it. But recently Jones got on CNN and the Koran burning story went everywhere. It even reached Afghanistan, where Jones was burned in effigy and Gen. David Petraeus said the book burning could jeopardize the mission of U.S. troops.

In Washington, a broad coalition of religious leaders from evangelical, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim organizations called Jones' plan a violation of American values.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the threat to burn Korans a "disrespectful, disgraceful act." At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed the concerns raised by Petraeus. "Any type of activity like that that puts our troops in harm's way would be a concern to this administration," Gibbs told reporters.

Up to now, the Dove World Outreach Center, which is nondenominational but follows the Pentecostal tradition, has scraped by with a congregation of 50 "on a good day," said Wayne Sapp.

Jones was previously a hotel manager in Tennessee. He has published a book called Islam is of the Devil that sells for $12.99. He sells an Islam devil coffee mug for $14.99.

He had just three people watching his back on Tuesday. But now he has a worldwide audience.

Trinity Methodist decided it needed to do something. Pastor Dan Johnson said he had prayed over calling on Jones, but decided they had nothing in common. Instead, he helped organize a Gainesville Interfaith Forum, made of up of Christians, Jews and Muslims. They're holding a counter-protest at Trinity on Friday night. They made the church into a big hall where they will have booths for different religions, baskets of bread from cultures around the world, and a candle-lighting ceremony. They expect about 1,200 people.

"We're seeing what good can come out of a bad situation," Johnson said.

• • •

At Dove World, Jones has set three hours aside on Saturday night for the Koran burning.

The FBI and Gainesville police have asked him not to allow crowds on the lawn. Whoever comes will be kept near the street, about 30 yards from the burning. Sapp said they have no idea what kind of crowd to expect. "It could be five, it could be 5,000," he said.

Jones has about 200 Korans. They've been shipped to the church by sympathizers from all over the country, along with donations. Many of the Korans were ordered on Amazon.com.

Sapp said he and his wife and a couple of other associate pastors will pile the holy books on the center of the lawn. Jones will speak and lead prayers, then they'll light the bonfire.

• • •

TV reporters hammered Sapp all day. How could you send a message of hate? How could you ignore the pleas of Petraeus? He told them the church answers to God, and, so far, God says it's a go.

Sapp said no church has been so maligned as his.

"No one in history has been through anything like this," he said. "Jesus had just one part of the world down on him. We've got the whole world."

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

Defiant Gainesville pastor goes ahead with plans to burn Korans despite pleas 09/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 1:41pm]

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